Watching Wendell Berry, The Mad Farmer
Wendell Berry in 'The Seer'
'The Seer'

'The Seer'

The Seer's subtitle is “A Portrait of Wendell Berry,” but that's not strictly accurate. Berry (who is 81) only appears on screen in old photographs and footage from the 1977 debate between him and former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz. He speaks to director Laura Dunn throughout the film, though, and his wife Tanya and daughter Mary appear as well, along with a number of farmers from Henry County, Kentucky, where the Berrys have made their home for a long time.

So we do learn about his life. But The Seer is only sort of biographical, and that seems like at least partly Berry's doing. Just last week, when asked in The New York Times's “By the Book” feature whom he'd want to write his life story, Berry replied, “A horrible thought. Nobody. As the only person who ever has lived my life, I know that most of it can never be documented, is beyond writing and beyond words.”

Luckily, The Seer—which premiered in competition at SXSW on March 12 and was directed, edited, and produced by Dunn—has a much grander goals than hagiography.

Berry is the rare writer and activist who can't be claimed by a single party: beloved by the right for his localist pro-family traditionalism and the left for his localist anti-corporate activism, Berry's writings—which make an unswerving case for a return to the farm, the family, faith, and all that is traditional and local—have taken on an unquestioned totemic quality among a lot of evangelicals.

Wendell Berry in 'The Seer'

Wendell Berry in 'The Seer'

I'm uneasy about that. Years ago, Robert Joustra and I wrote in Books & Culture about Berry and the local food movement, and while I took the pro-Berry side in our exchange, Rob wrote that “to be truly virtuous in a globalized world means that our justice must be scalable,” and that line has stuck with me as a way of explaining what parts of Berry's writing I find problematic.

Berry sometimes seems to be writing polemics meant for a world that barely exists. Rooting in place and community and limits look very different for twenty-first century urbanites who are lawyers and IT professionals than it does for farmer-poets in Henry County. Without probing the edges of his arguments and trying to work them into the broader globalized context, those who read him limit the possibilities of what he's saying. He also needs interpreters.

I suspect Berry knows this, and that's why he writes poetry and fiction: his ideas take on a more universal quality when particularized to his characters in the fictional Port William, or to his Mad Farmer poems. He's most coherently viewed as a prophet. And he's been recognized as one through numerous awards, including the National Humanities Medal, awarded by President Obama in 2010. “I don't think that you can love those old values and love what has come to be American agriculture at the same time,” he says.

So it is fitting that Dunn's appropriately-titled film is actually a cinematic elegy for American farming and a plea for renewal. It both mourns and celebrates a way of life that is threatened. In a number of “chapters” with titles drawn from Berry's writings, farmers and family—who in the film are only identified on screen by their role: daughter, wife, farmer—speak of their love of the land and the creative and intuitive intelligence a farmer must develop to tend to his own. They talk frankly about the havoc wreaked on them by the rise of commercialized, large-scale farming, especially in the Philip Morris-subsidized farming of tobacco. Mexican farm workers talk about their jobs, and farmers talk about how labor has shifted. Some of them talk about being in debt so deep that they can't recover. (There's a smattering of salty language.) They talk about the impact the work of Berry and others have had to stem this tide; initiatives like community supported agriculture and farmer's markets, which are now ubiquitous in both the rural town where I grew up and my home in Brooklyn, owe a debt to Berry.

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Watching Wendell Berry, The Mad Farmer